With great patriotic fervor and military fanfare, Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Oak Harbor, Washington, welcomed home the crew of our country’s most famous EP-3 electronic surveillance aircraft last Saturday.

When our people were still detained in China, the situation called for the tempered language of diplomacy. Now that the crew is safely on American soil, our government is rightfully taking a firm stand: China, not the United States, is fully responsible for this collision and the death of the Chinese pilot, Wang Wei.

The facts are quite clear. Our surveillance plane was flying on autopilot in international airspace. Two Chinese fighters were not happy about the EP-3’s presence near China, so they decided to harass it. Wang wanted to hot dog and rattle the American crew, so he flew his fighter within a few feet of the propeller-powered EP-3 several times.

During his third pass, Wang hit the EP-3’s propeller, destroyed his own plane and sent the American plane into a dive. The Chinese argue that the EP-3 rammed their fighter, and then they declared Wang a national hero. Claiming that the collision is our fault is as absurd as blaming Poland for invading Germany in 1939, and lionizing Wang’s flying is like rooting for the guy who gets shot down first in the climactic dogfight scene in “Top Gun.”

But the collision is not the real issue here. What really bothers China is that the United States Navy flies surveillance planes off of China’s coast. China sees us as a hegemonic power continuing the imperialist tradition of the West and infringing on what should be a Chinese-dominated region. China’s goal is to use this incident to force us to stop the EP-3 flights.

Critics of American policy ask how the United States would react if China flew similar aircraft off the coast of California. These critics are only interested in being fashionably anti-American — the situations are not analogous.

Beyond our Pacific coast is open ocean. Our neighbors to the north and south are allied democracies. Beyond China’s Pacific coast are three military allies of the United States: Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. We use EP-3s to monitor China’s coastal military activities in order to protect Taiwan, a largely-Chinese democracy that China continually threatens to attack.

The American military presence in the western Pacific exists to protect democracy and promote self-determination within Asian countries. China would like us to leave the region so that it can dominate its neighbors with its brand of capitalist authoritarianism. Beijing cloaks its fight against Asian democracy in anti-Western, anti-imperialist language in a desperate quest for international support.

The United States is not an imperialist power. Imperialism involves a particular people dominating others for the sake of political domination and economic exploitation. We are an inherently polyglot nation, a melting pot for all the world’s peoples, cultures and values.

The EP-3 crew’s homecoming illustrates the key difference between the United States and China’s roles as world powers. When the crew arrived in Honolulu, they shook the hands of some senior Navy officers, followed by Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye. Inouye is one of the U.S. Senate’s most senior members — and a Japanese-American.

The crowd that gathered on Whidbey Island for the homecoming included faces of every color — both in uniform and not. The formal receiving line included two admirals (one an African-American), two U.S. senators (both women), the town’s mayor and Washington Gov. Gary Locke. Locke is the nation’s first Chinese-American governor (and a Yalie). This crisis highlights our achievements as a multiracial democracy.

America’s diversity and tolerance make us strong. China wants to expand Chinese power. We want to spread the power of democracy, inclusion and tolerance. American power in the post-Cold War era is embodied in constitutional democracy, human rights, the free market and the rule of law. These are not, as China contends, merely Western values. They are global values.

I hope that one day China will accept these values and take its place as a democratic world power. Greater economic integration and bridge-building with China will hasten that day’s arrival — isolation will not help matters. But, while we continue to engage China, we must steadfastly maintain American military power in the western Pacific as a force for democracy — not hegemony.

John Schochet is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. This is his final regular column.